A greener University may be on the way, according to President Mary Sue Coleman’s speech yesterday. In her annual State of the University address, she focused on plans to double research spending and increase environmental sustainability at the University. And while she’s right to make these two issues priorities of the University, it’s important that her words translate to action, especially concerning sustainability. The University has lagged behind others in creating a more environmentally friendly campus and Coleman should erase past failings by truly revamping University buildings and energy practices.
President Coleman’s speech recounted a number of developments at the University, including its success in reaching total research funding of more than $1 billion for the first time in the University’s history. Coleman expects this figure to double by 2017, which would surpass the nation’s current leader, John Hopkins University, at $1.55 billion annually. She also spent significant time announcing the creation of several new positions and committees designed to make the University more sustainable. These included the Sustainability Executive Council, which will monitor sustainability at the University, and the Office of Campus Sustainability, which will coordinate sustainability programs on campus.
Focusing on sustainability is certainly appropriate, given the critical importance of environmental preservation issues. Wide-scale environmental challenges like global warming, biodiversity loss and increasing scarcity in resources like fresh water are now well-documented and pose very real threats to animals and humans alike. Experts and the public are increasingly forced to acknowledge that the planet’s growing population of consumers can only be sustained through two routes: more environmentally friendly practices or serious and permanent damage to the environment, at home and abroad.
With such high stakes, it’s disappointing, if not surprising, that administrators have allowed the University to fall behind the curve on sustainability. Coleman delivered her speech at the newly constructed Ross School of Business, which features environmentally friendly construction and achieved silver LEED (Leadership in Environmental and Energy Design) certification. But this building came in behind Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s new business school and Stanford’s planned business school, which are both expected to receive higher LEED certifications. And the University’s new B-School was only the second building on campus to receive LEED certification. The other building, the School of Natural Resource’s Dana Building, only features a suitably green design because students approached administrators and urged them to modify their plans and pursue LEED certification.
Making matters worse, Coleman told the Daily in an interview after her speech that she isn’t going to sign the American College and University Presidents’ Climate Commitment. The commitment, which aims to combat greenhouse gas emissions and curb global warming, has already been signed by 654 university presidents. Coleman claims that the environmental standards called for by the commitment are unrealistic, but setting difficult goals is one of the best ways to ensure that progress on environmental issues is made. Coleman’s inaction here calls into question how serious her commitment to a sustainable University really is.
Administrators must make sure that Coleman’s comments on sustainability amount to more than just lip service. Forming committees is just a start — administrators must actively look for ways to make buildings more environmentally friendly. And they should listen to students ideas on the subject, too.